o The Frog Blog: Robert Hooke

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Robert Hooke


Robert Hooke is one of the most neglected natural philosophers of all time. Among his accomplishments are the invention of the universal joint, the iris diaphragm and an early prototype of the respirator. He also invented the anchor escapement and the balance spring, which made more accurate clocks possible; served as Chief Surveyor and helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666; worked out the correct theory of combustion; devised an equation describing elasticity that is still used today ("Hooke's Law"). He assisted Robert Boyle in studying the physics of gases; invented or improved meteorological instruments such as the barometer, anemometer, and hygrometer; and so on. He was the type of scientist that was then called a virtuoso - able to contribute findings of major importance in any field of science. Hooke's reputation in the history of biology largely rests on his book Micrographia, published in 1665. Hooke devised the compound microscope and used it to observe organisms as diverse as insects, sponges and bird feathers. Micrographia was an accurate and detailed record of his observations. Hooke was also a keen observer of fossils and geology. Hooke was the first person to examine fossils with a microscope and in doing so he had grasped the cardinal principle of palaeontology - that fossils are the remains of once-living organisms that can be used to help us understand the history of life. Hooke realized, two and a half centuries before Darwin, that the fossil record documents changes among the organisms on the planet, and that species have both appeared and gone extinct throughout the history of life on Earth.

His health deteriorated over the last decade of his life, although one of his biographers wrote that "He was of an active, restless, indefatigable Genius even almost to the last." He died on this day, March 3rd, in London in 1703. It is safe to say that Robert Hooke never really received the recognition for his work during his lifetime, this is in part due to the negative impact of a major falling out with Sir Isaac Newton, a former colleague of Hooke.

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